Meeting professionals rarely talk about status and power issues. This is unfortunate because the ways that status and power manifest at meetings matter. Why? Because a majority of those who attend most meetings have little say over what happens at them. Typical meeting formats are rigid, and attendees play largely circumscribed roles.
So, let’s explore the roles of status and power at meetings.
Picture the renowned senior consultant breezing into the gleaming corporate HQ of Fortune 500 MegaCorp, for a well-paid gig advising C-suite executives. Now, picture the newly-hired janitor who spends their evenings mopping & vacuuming floors, cleaning restrooms, and emptying trash and recycling cans in a small MegaCorp branch office. Who has more power, the consultant or the janitor?
“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one.” —Isabel, in Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
I love science fiction, which Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas”. In a world where it sometimes seems change is impossible, science fiction explores how our future will be different. Science fiction is also especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time.
Above all, good science fiction excels at telling stories. Powerful stories. Stories that routinely predict the future: earth orbit satellites, the surveillance state, cell phones, electric submarines, climate change, electronic media, the Cold War were all foreshadowed by science fiction stories long before they came to pass. Science fiction introduces possible futures, some of which come to pass, by using the power of stories.
Events operate by stories
Like science fiction, events also create futures, and events operate by stories. Just as good stories have a story arc, coherent events have a conference arc. In addition, every event participant creates their own story at an event, just as each reader or viewer individually absorbs and experiences a book or movie story.
It’s incumbent on all of us who create and design events to think carefully and creatively about the stories our events tell. When we do so successfully, the power of stories shapes and maximizes participants’ individual and collective outcomes — and changes lives.
Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power: the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others. This is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models.
“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.” —Harold Jarche, the new networked norm
It’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.
Influence but no authority
As a consultant in various fields for 40 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice. Sometimes they do, but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t continue to be hired and — usually 😀 — appreciated.)
Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. This development has caused significant disruptions. Two examples: less long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse. However, there’s a positive side.
The network era
The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. Today there’s no reason to pick either positional or network era power. We can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.
Here’s Harold Jarche again:
“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.” —Harold Jarche, chaos and order
This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and onboard. But the most senior decision-maker will occasionally override everyone else in the organization. They make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and a lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.
The network era is here. Its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.
We all want to create powerful meetings, but the opportunity is often missed.
All meetings incorporate power relationships that fundamentally affect their dynamics and potential. Traditional conferences unconsciously promote and sustain power imbalances between the “speakers” at the front of the room and the audience. Such events invoke a version of power Tom AtleecallsPower-over: “the ability to control, influence, manage, dominate, destroy, or otherwise directly shape what happens to someone or something”.
People often tolerate this form of power on their lives (or seek to wield it) because they hold an underlying belief that when you lose control everything turns to chaos. Meeting stakeholders and planners typically subscribe to this viewpoint because they can’t conceive of (usually because they’ve never experienced) a form of meeting that successfully uses a different kind of power relationship: Power-with.
Here’s Tom’s description of Power-with:
“Power-with is the kind of power that arises through connection—connection to ourselves, to each other, to what’s going on, and to everything else. We could describe power-with as holistic partnership power. In its most mature and comprehensive form, it involves our ability to see allies, resources, and possibilities anywhere and everywhere, and to engage with them for mutual and collective benefit.”
“Power-with is not the opposite of power-over, because they can and do co-exist. We see power-with enhancing power-over when work teams collaborate to generate market dominance for their company or when activist alliances overwhelm their opponents in the political battlefield. We can also see it in how PR works with people’s instinctive urges and reactions to manipulate them into certain beliefs and behaviors. On the other hand, we see power-over enhancing power-with in competitions that promote collective benefits and win-win solutions, such as the Olympics (at their best) and households and schools competing for the lowest carbon footprint.” —Tom Atlee, The Dance of Power-over and Power-with
Using Power-with process — my books contain many examples — in our meetings allows us to potentially partner with, learn from, and connect with everyone at the event, rather than a few pre-chosen presenters.
Tom describes the energetics of Power-with as being like those of a dance or a jazz improvisation, requiring the exercise of “attending to, responding to, learning from, and shifting with the reality—especially the vitality—of what’s around us, what’s within us, what’s in front of us”.
Meetings that include Power-with formats have an additional benefit. They provide participants with experiences where there are “an abundance of people and things to work with everywhere”. This allows us to create powerful meetings.
Finally, Tom points out that Power-with…
“is not about suppressing our own needs and aspirations to serve something or someone else. That is an effort to control ourselves, which is a power-over approach. The essence of positive power-with is mutual or collective benefit: I get my needs met and exercise my best self by helping someone or something else meet its needs and exercise its best self.”
This describes the essence of the energy that drives peer conferences and participant-driven and participation-rich meetings: the pleasure gained through co-creating and experiencing mutual benefit for individuals and the group. It’s why being part of such meetings, rather than designing them or writing about them, is my favorite professional activity.
Such a contrast to the dreary, exhausting, and ultimately unmemorable meetings I used to experience and which are still, unfortunately, still far too common today.
Some stories have a dark side. Hans Bleiker tells a story about a group of scientists who spent several years carefully researching how to maintain the health of a deer herd, and determined that some minor changes in state hunting regulations would be very effective. At a public hearing, their entire case was undermined in 15 minutes by the testimony of a guy who loudly protested that his great-grandfather had helped his father shoot his first deer, his father had gone with him to shoot his first deer, and he’d be damned if some bunch of scientists were going to stop him help his son to shoot his first deer.
It’s been hard to miss the deluge of books and articles pointing out (correctly) that presenters who tell relevant, well-told stories have far more impact on listeners than those who recite a litany of facts. It’s not surprising that the most popular and highly paid professional speakers are those with a vivid story to tell — one that often follows some variant of the hero’s journey
Stories have great power to change our minds. They can do wonderful things. Challenge our ingrained beliefs, make us aware of injustice, inspire us to be better human beings, and motivate us to act for the greater good.
Unfortunately, such power can also be used for evil. People can use stories to inflict great damage.
Stories are dangerous, because, even with good intentions, stories can be wrong. And, more dangerously, they can be purposefully misleading. A child’s default belief is that stories they hear are true. We tend to carry that belief into adulthood despite increasing experience that stories can be seriously biased and deceptive. The terrible way in which it has recently become routine for authority figures to publicly lie in order to achieve their own objectives is leading to a world where “alternative facts” are becoming the norm.
Some stories have a dark side
Event planners often select and support presenters who get a platform to tell their stories to an audience. While acknowledging the power of stories, let’s not forget that they can evoke dark passions in those who hear them. As people who make events happen, we bear a responsibility to decide whether we want to tacitly support those storytellers among us who use stories for immoral and unethical ends.
Perhaps you’re wondering: what’s the connection between facilitation, rapt attention, and love?
Why am I drawn to facilitation? I’ve often heard an uneasy inner voice that wonders if it’s about a desire or need for control and/or power. And yet I know through experience that when I am facilitating well, I have influence but no real control or power.
Then I read this:
“Freud said that psychoanalysis is a ‘cure through love,’ and I think that is essentially correct. The love is conveyed not so much in the content as in the form: the rapt attention of someone who cares enough to interrogate you. The love stows away in the conversation.” —Psychotherapist and writer Gary Greenberg, interviewed in “Who Are You Calling Crazy?”, The Sun, July 2016
Facilitation is not psychotherapy (though sometimes it may have similar results.) But they both have something in common when performed with skill: the gift of listening closely. And that gift of rapt attention is given out of love—not of the content but through the form.
Though I sometimes want to be in (illusory) control, I am drawn to facilitation out of love.
Why are you drawn (if, indeed, you are) to facilitation?
We can’t talk about how we could do things better around here We can’t talk about what isn’t working We can’t talk about the countless opportunities we ignore We can’t talk about what hurts We can’t talk about dignity We can’t talk about how to make magic happen We can’t talk to our boss, our employees, our board, our investors We can’t talk about the things we can’t talk about
One of the reasons we feel we can’t talk about things is that we are scared about who might hear—people who have, or might have, power or influence of some kind over us, like our boss (“You’re fired!“) or colleagues (“He’s weird!”)
Even if we’re at a meeting where none of these people are present, we’re unlikely to say certain things if we’re worried that, somehow, what we say gets back to these people.
Which is why one of the ground rules I ask everyone to agree to at the start of my conferences is about confidentiality:
“What we discuss at this conference will remain confidential. What we share here, stays here.”
I explain that you can still talk about what happened in general terms (“Most participants thought that implementing the new regulations would lead to increased airline security.”), but not in a way that directly implicates an individual (“John Smith said that the new regulations were just security theatre.”)
In the fourteen years since I introduced this ground rule, no one has ever refused to abide by it. And, to my knowledge, no one has ever breached this form of confidentiality.
There’s no ultimate guarantee, of course, that everyone will always honor this agreement. When we share something intimate, at that moment we are trusting those around us. Each person has to decide whether they are prepared to take a risk. Sometimes they will remain quiet. But my observations over the years have led me to believe that this ground rule makes the environment safer for many attendees, with the consequence that some of them will share important sensitive things that would otherwise remain unsaid.
We can talk about it, if we feel safe enough. Explaining and obtaining agreement on a confidentiality ground rule can take a minute at the start of an event. In my experience, it’s time well spent.